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2021 SoC showdown: Snapdragon 888 vs Exynos 2100 vs Kirin 9000 vs Apple A14

Following the announcement of Samsung’s next-gen Exynos 2100 processor, the list of flagship processors set to power 2021’s flagship smartphones is now complete. The Exynos 2100 joins Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888, Huawei’s Kirin 9000, and Apple’s A14 Bionic as the brains behind early 2021’s flagship smartphones. So, let’s take a look at what each of them has in store for our next-gen gadgets.

Before diving into the differences, let’s start with two big similarities across all of these chips. First, all four are manufactured on a cutting-edge 5nm EUV process. New manufacturing techniques at Samsung and TSMC foundries enable smaller transistor sizes than ever before, resulting in greater density and improved energy efficiency. Both provide tangible improvements to chip capabilities, performance, and battery life.

The second common thread is the move to integrated 5G modems. With the exception of Apple’s A14 Bionic, 2021 flagship smartphones benefit from an integrated 5G modem on the same chip as the processor and other components. Again, integration is a boon for performance, area size, and energy efficiency. All four chipsets sport Sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G network support. However, there are other futureproof and cutting-edge feature differences. Combined with the move to 5nm, next-gen smartphones already stand to receive some notable benefits for energy efficiency and battery life.

For a closer look at each of 2021’s flagship smartphone processors, check out our individual coverage at the links below. Now, let’s dive into a high-level comparison of these four flagship processors.

Exynos 2100 vs Snapdragon 888 vs Apple A14 Bionic vs Kirin 9000 specs

  Samsung Exynos 2100 Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 HiSilicon Kirin 9000 Apple A14 Bionic
CPU Config 1x Cortex-X1 @ 2.9GHz
3x Cortex-A78 @ 2.8GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 2.2GHz
1x Cortex-X1 @ 2.84GHz
3x Cortex-A78 @ 2.4GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 1.8GHz
1x Cortex-A77 @ 3.13GHz
3x Cortex-A77 @ 2.54GHz
4x Cortex-A55 @ 2.05GHz
2x Firestorm (Big cores)
4x Icestorm (Little cores)
(Fully-custom CPU designs)
GPU Arm Mali-G78, 14 cores Adreno 660 Arm Mali-G78, 24 cores 4 core (Apple in-house design)
AI / DSP Tri-core NPU Hexagon 780
(Fused Scalar, Tensor, and Vector)
2x big core
1x tiny core
16-core Neural Engine
Modem 4G LTE
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7.35Gbps download
(integrated Exynos 5123)
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7.5Gbps download
3Gbps upload
(integrated Snapdragon X60)
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7.5Gbps download
3.5Gbps upload
(integrated Balong 5000)
5G sub-6Ghz & mmWave
7.5Gbps download
3Gbps upload
(external Snapdragon X55)
Process 5nm 5nm 5nm 5nm

What to expect from next-gen performance

One of the most obvious points of comparison is between the CPU setups in the Exynos 2100 and Snapdragon 888. Samsung and Qualcomm are both participants in the Arm CXC program, netting them access to the powerhouse Cortex-X1 CPU core. Both chipsets also use three big Cortex-A78 cores and four small Cortex-A55s.

Samsung has clocked its CPU cores more aggressively, however. This hints at a slight performance advantage for your day-to-day apps. Nevertheless, there’s more at play than clock speeds, such as core and system cache sweet spots, which affect performance too. Regardless, with Samsung’s custom Mongoose cores gone, we can expect much closer performance and energy parity between Exynos and Snapdragon this generation. Benchmarks show the Cortex-X1 to be even beefier than Samsung’s last-gen M5 core, so the Snapdragon catches up a lot in this regard.

We’ve seen much closer performance and energy parity between Exynos and Snapdragon this generation.

Turning to Huawei’s Kirin, the older Cortex-A77 CPU cores offer an even higher peak clock, which may help to close the last-gen performance deficit somewhat. Although the Cortex-X1 is by far the more powerful core for single thread scenarios. Likewise, Apple’s custom Firestorm CPU cores remain even further at the front, at least based on single-core benchmarks. However, the other chipsets close the gap in multi-threaded environments, just like previous generations.

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There are bold performance claims to be had when it comes to graphics performance as well. Samsung claims a 40% GPU boost with the Exynos 2100’s 14-core Arm Mali-G78 implementation over last year’s 11-core Mali-G77 setup. However, this setup is still much smaller than the Kirin 9000’s huge 24-core Mali-G78 configuration. Nevertheless, performance doesn’t scale linearly with Mali GPU core counts, so we don’t expect the Kirin 9000 to come close to doubling the Exynos 2100’s graphics performance. Huawei claims its GPU provides 52% more performance than Qualcomm’s 2020 powerhouse Snapdragon 865 Plus in the GFXBench benchmark. Although we haven’t seen this pan out in our in-house benchmarks thus far.

5nm chipsets: Snapdragon 888 vs Apple A14 vs Kirin 9000

Qualcomm is touting a 35% graphics performance improvement moving from the Snapdragon 865 to 888. In theory, this should keep the chipset’s gaming performance out ahead of the Exynos 2100 and Kirin 9000 this generation. However, as Samsung has closed the general performance this year, we won’t see another heated debate over its Exynos and Snapdragon Galaxy handsets variants.

Apple’s A14 Bionic offers the smallest generational graphics improvement, estimated to be in the region of 8% over last year’s A13 chip. However, Apple had a healthy lead anyway, so will remain competitive this generation. Regardless of which chipset powers your next phone, Android gaming performance is set for a major boost compared to 2020 smartphones.

Benchmark results

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

So how do these theoretical improvements shake out in the real world? To check the claims, we’ve grabbed a selection of smartphones powered by these new chips and run a selection of popular benchmarks.

We’ve tested Apple’s A14 and A13, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 and 865 Plus, the Exynos 2100 and 990, as well as the Kirin 9000 and 900. So we can also track the generation to generation performance gains from each chipset vendor.

Traditional benchmarks confirm the broad rankings based on paper specifications. Apple’s A14 Bionic keeps its head out in front for single-core CPU performance, followed by the Cortex-X1 powered Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100. AnTuTu’s system performance score sees the Kirin 9000 climb the rankings, while 3DMark shows that Huawei’s chipset ends up further down the list for graphics performance. What’s particularly interesting is that fast Snapdragon 865 Plus smartphones from the previous generation, such as the Asus Rog 3, remain very competitive with 2021 flagship smartphones.

For a closer look at system performance, we’ve broken out our in-house Speed Test GX benchmark. The results pretty much confirm the trend from the legacy benchmarks. There’s a marginal lead for Apple’s chip, followed by Qualcomm’s latest flagship, then Samsung, then Huawei.

In summary, the Snapdragon 888 hasn’t quite matched the lofty performance expectations touted by Qualcomm, but it’s not far off. It appears that the graphics performance improvements are somewhat muted over the previous generation Snapdragon 865 Plus, unless the title benefits from variable-rate shading. Even so, the Snapdragon 888 is the fastest chipset in the Android ecosystem and is just a smidgen behind the Apple A14 in our in-house benchmark.

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Overall there’s a notable CPU performance boost to be had this generation, whether you’re picking a Snapdragon, Exynos, or Kirin powered smartphone. The battle hasn’t been this close in years.

Breaking down the other major trends

Performance is a small part of the mobile SoC landscape these days. High-end chipset features also power AI, photography, multimedia, networking, and other essential aspects of our smartphones.

Without a much deeper look at each system architecture, we can’t say a whole lot about AI performance based on the trillion operations per second (TOPS) metric that’s so often banded about. After all, what does each of those operations actually do? Even so, we can use the numbers provided to get a rough look at the landscape and how performance is improving this generation.

There’s at least a 70% boost to AI performance across all four chips.

The Apple A14 boasts 11TOPs of AI inferencing performance, which is an 83% boost over the 6TOPs in the A13. The Exynos 2100 has a new tri-core NPU capable of processing 26 TOPS, up from 15 TOPS in the Exynos 990. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 boasts a similar 26TOPs of AI compute, so another 73% increase from the Snapdragon 865’s 15TOPs. Huawei is bolder, claiming a 2.4x performance win for AI processing capabilities via its NPU over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865.

So, big improvement claims all around. The key takeaway is that more demanding AI applications can run faster than ever before. As long as apps leverage the correct APIs for each platform.

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

More noticeable changes are found in the camera and multimedia departments.

The Exynos 2100 leads the charge with new ISP support for 200MP camera resolutions. Alternatively, the ISP can process streams from four cameras simultaneously. You’ll find the same 200MP single shot support with the Snapdragon 888, or up to three 24MP cameras running at once. Samsung and Qualcomm both support up to 8K 30fps video capture, but only the former sports 8K 60fps playback. Qualcomm does 8K at 30fps. We’ll have to see if smartphones end up implementing these 8K and multi-camera features.

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Unfortunately, we don’t have the same information about the A14 Bionic and Kirin 9000. But as these chips appear exclusively in devices from the same manufacturers, we’ll have to make device-by-device comparisons. What we do know is that they’re tightly integrating photography and AI capabilities to produce better-looking images.

Huawei, for example, combines the power of its ISP and NPU in the Mate 40 series to color balance its RYYB image sensor, offer digital image stabilization, and power other parts of its XD Fusion suite. This includes portrait enhancements, multi-frame HDR, and real-time 4K bokeh blur. The iPhone 12’s “deep fusion” enhancements pitch in for low light portraits, HDR frame blending, and software zoom enhancements.

Each chip offers a different array of camera features, but all support a growing number of sensors and integrated AI processing.

Samsung has its own bag of tricks too. The Exynos 2100’s multi-camera and frame processor (MCFP) takes data from up to four cameras to improve zoom and wide-angle performance. ISP and AI processors in combination also power scene, facial, and object recognition and enhancements. Qualcomm offers similar features with the Snapdragon 888. This includes AI autofocus, auto-exposure, and white balance, as well as the ability to run object detection and segmentation directly on the ISP for 4K video. However, it remains to be seen how many Snapdragon 888 smartphones will make use of these features.

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Of course, chipsets are only a part of the photography picture. Lenses and sensors matter just as much. 2021 is certain to see smarter, more powerful smartphone cameras, with a longer list of features. As such, we should expect a wide range of capabilities and setups in the market, as manufacturers pick and choose which features to best leverage, ranging from 8K video prowess, multi-camera image blending, and AI enhances capabilities. 2021 will be another exciting year for mobile photography.

What to expect from 2021 mobile processors

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

5nm and 5G are the headline talking points for 2021 processors. Smaller more efficient 5nm processors lend themselves to some of the more notable performance gains we’ve seen in recent generations. Although gaming looks to be a big winner on paper, it appears that Android smartphones actually stand to benefit more from single-core CPU uplift. At the same time, denser chips pack in more AI, image processing, and networking features than ever before. All four of these SoCs will have you well covered for general performance and demanding apps.

If you’re buying a phone for the long term with an eye for 5G networking, all four chipsets have you covered for the eventual transition to Standalone 5G networks down the line. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Snapdragon X60 modem inside the Snapdragon 888 introduces 5G Voice-over-NR (VoNR) capabilities. It also has enhanced carrier aggregation across sub-6GHz and mmWave. So does the Exynos 2100, but you won’t find this tech with the Apple A14 Bionic’s Snapdragon X55 modem. Although again, many 5G capabilities will come down to individual handsets and not just the chipset.

Great phones can be built from all four chips. It comes down to in-house versus third-party handset development.

What matters most is the final smartphones. Apple and Huawei both benefit from the close relationship between their handset and chipset design teams. They can make the most of what their respective chipsets have to offer. So does Samsung to some extent, although it tends to aim for parity when mixing and matching chips within its Galaxy smartphone range. Qualcomm assists its partners, but can’t make them embrace every little trick the Snapdragon 888 has to offer. Smartphone implementations, therefore, remain wide open.

Thanks to these premium-tier chipsets, 2021 is poised to be another good year for smartphones. Especially for gamers and multi-media enthusiasts. The bigger unknown is whether these new SoCs and features will result in yet higher smartphone prices, or if the move to integrated components will lessen the overall bill. Analysis of the iPhone 12 points to a big cost hike moving from 7nm to 5nm, although Samsung has launched its most affordable Galaxy S21 series in years.

We’ll have to wait for a few more launches before we have a full overview of how 2021’s premium smartphone market will shape up.